Intel and Panasonic wooing aviation with EFB product lineup

 - February 5, 2007, 5:26 AM

Two of the computer industry’s biggest names appear to be taking a keen interest in aviation, betting that airlines and business aircraft operators will continue to rely on off-the-shelf computer technology to serve their electronic flight bag (EFB) hardware needs well into the predictable future.

Computer chip maker Intel and notebook manufacturer Panasonic last month co-hosted an industry event in Miami, called the 2005 Aviation Symposium and attended by representatives from every major U.S. airline except JetBlue, whose executives had to bow out at the last minute after a blizzard shut down New York JFK Airport.

The purpose of the event was twofold. First, the computer companies wanted to convince airline executives that the combination of Panasonic Toughbook notebook computers and Intel Centrino mobile processors adds up to a better choice for the flight deck than the portable touch-screen EFB computers a number of small suppliers sell. Second, the computer industry executives were seeking information about precisely what technologies would best serve the airlines, both for the cockpit and for maintenance operations, presumably so that they could go out and develop them.

Intel chief strategist Chris Thomas told the airline representatives attending the event that future hardware and software for the flight deck will be designed around mobile concepts applied to a broad range of portable computing devices, adding that all processes in the future would emanate from the initial goal of eliminating paper from the cockpit, which he called a key cost driver.

“Getting rid of paper will save huge sums of money down the road,” Thomas said.
While business aviation often outpaces the airlines in the implementation of new cockpit technology, the Miami event made it clear that major U.S. airlines are serious about installing EFB computers across their fleets. Once that starts happening, business aircraft operators will be the beneficiaries of new aviation-specific EFB technology–perhaps based on Panasonic’s Toughbook notebook computing platforms.

Still, airline CFOs need to see the bottom-line return on investment figures before they commit to a broad capital outlay for technology that will be bought or leased for a fleet of airplanes. Some experts predict portable EFB technology is only a stepping stone until the widespread introduction of avionics systems that integrate navigation charts, electronic checklists, aircraft manuals and other information on the flight displays.

To assist airline executives in determining the benefits of equipping their fleets with portable EFBs, Jeppesen has created a return-on-investment tool that lets carriers plug numbers into a computer to calculate how much money they can save by going paperless.

Rance Poehler, president of the Panasonic division that manufactures Toughbook computers, told symposium attendees that the cost savings the airlines will realize by equipping with EFBs now will far exceed what they could save by waiting for technology developed by the avionics industry.

He demonstrated a Panasonic Toughbook computer mounted in the cockpit and connected to a handheld display. Noting that a Toughbook notebook stopped an AK-47 round in Iraq, Poehler said his company’s products are well suited to the cockpit environment.